AGENDA: Asking the right question will get the right answer

’A man so various that he seem’d to be, not one, but all mankind’s epitome; everything by starts but nothing long; fiddler, statesman, scholar and buffoon, all in the course of one revolving moon.’ That comes from Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden’s savage assault upon Lord Shaftesbury, a 17th century politician of more than usual deviousness.

’A man so various that he seem’d to be, not one, but all mankind’s

epitome; everything by starts but nothing long; fiddler, statesman,

scholar and buffoon, all in the course of one revolving moon.’ That

comes from Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden’s savage assault upon Lord

Shaftesbury, a 17th century politician of more than usual

deviousness.



I hope I’m not that devious, but I have tried about every way you can

imagine - and quite a few you couldn’t - to make money. For instance 30

odd years ago I named and helped put together a research firm, which got

a whopping great contract from part of British Rail. For all I know it

was the first consumer research BR did.



I actually drafted the questionnaire - rather worrying, since a lot of

research comes up with the wrong answers because the wrong questions are

asked. For instance, asking people whether they will buy a product is

rarely likely to give the right answer, which is why so many products

predicted to succeed fail. Professor Andrew Ehrenberg, to whom I make no

apology for quoting again, as he is always lucid and often funny,

suggests the real question is, would you give up the product you are

using now to buy this new one?



I recalled this on returning recently, very tired, from the Far

East.



I was handed a leaflet saying, ’Pre-book your London taxi’ as I was

about to catch the splendid new Heathrow Express. ’What a good idea’, I

thought, and began to read the copy, carefully printed for minimum

legibility in sanserif type on a mauve background.



Few things tend to jaundice this weary traveller than a slew of cliches

at 7am, so I was thrown into deep despondency as I read the turgid

opening: ’As part of our ongoing service enhancement Heathrow Express

are conducting a trial operation to enable our customers to buy a

pre-booked taxi voucher at Heathrow Central Station’. Why the hell can’t

these people write plain English?



Now the one thing you really want before you buy anything new is precise

facts. They said that they would ’speed me through Paddington’ - though

guaranteeing me a taxi within ten minutes of the train’s arrival seems

more sloth than speed - and take me anywhere within Central London for

pounds 10. But what precisely does ’central’ London mean, do you think?

Imagine you’ve just arrived from Osaka and you’ve never been to London

before.



I live here, and don’t know. Does it cover Hammersmith, for

instance?



Whatever this trial reveals is likely to be distorted for that reason

alone - another being that after I was handed the leaflet, nobody really

tried to get me to buy the service. Believe me, if you were in the state

I was - and many of us are after being submitted to the tender mercies

of airlines (in this case, the chilly courtesy of Lufthansa) - you are

in no condition to make efforts to do anything. It really has to be done

for you.



Drayton Bird runs the Drayton Bird Partnership.



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